Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Supreme Court Decision Pt 1 - Euthanasia in the Law

Thanks to those who've responded so far.. we will respond to your comments as soon as we can and hopefully, we'll have something intelligent to say about them.

For now, we thought it might be an ideal time to describe in more detail the ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), so that people may gain an understanding of the current status of euthanasia with regards to Canadian Law.

In the context of this case, the Supreme court only examined Section 241(b) of the criminal code (the legal reasons for this are not clear to us at this point, perhaps if someone knows the reason they could illuminate this for us). This section in the Crimainal Code was challenged by sections 7, 12 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, although according to the judges it appeared that section 7 of the charter was the most important and deserved the most consideration.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

Section 7 of the charter defined here enshrines 3 distinct values within it (life, liberty and security of person), that cannot be deprived from an individual unless it is done so according to “the principles of fundamental justice”. The court made it clear that in this case the value that was violated most clearly was an individuals security of person. The other two values life (which was not violated), and liberty, were not seen as overly consequential because one violation of any value is enough for a challenge.

This left the court with the question of whether or not depriving Sue Rodriquez in this case of her right to security of person could be justified under a “principle of fundamental justice”. However, in order to make such a decision the court had to outline what exactly constituted a “principle of fundamental justice” for this case. To establish these principles, the court decided to consider the rationale and principles guiding the practice of assisted suicide and the legislative history regarding the practice.

The legislative history of Section 214 is relatively simple. It existed within the Criminal Code when parliament first enacted it and since then it has provided a blanket prohibition against assisted suicide. This provision fulfilled the governments interest in protecting vulnerable individuals and reflected the states interest in protecting the sanctity of life and ensuring that its value is not depreciated by allowing the taking of it. This general belief that life should not be taken or depreciated in any way manifests itself throughout the Canadian society and its legal system. For example, the abolishment of capital punishment in Canada represents an expression of this value. To this extent there appears to be coherence and consensus within Canadian society that human life must be respected. Due to the controversial nature of this subject, this appears to be the only consensus that can be achieved, as the decriminalization of assisted suicide does not enjoy widespread support. Based on these ideas the court determined that in Canadian society ‘the sanctity of life’ was a “principal of fundamental justice”.
Given the concerns about abuse and the great difficulty in creating effective safeguards against such abuse, the blanket prohibition against assisted suicide was not considered to be arbitrary. It was related to the governments real concerns about protecting vulnerable citizens and reflected some of the fundamental values at work in our society. It was by this reasoning that the Supreme Court decided a violation of the security of person enshrined under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was justified by the principles of fundamental justice.

This decision essentially enshrined the sanctity of life’s pre-eminence over security of person in the Canadian Legal system.

Due to the length of this entry sections 12 and 15 will be covered in separate blog entries. However, we thought it would be interesting to leave the reader with some questions to consider and hopefully respond too.

This decision essentially enshrined the sanctity of life’s preeminence over security of person in the Canadian Legal system. Are there any circumstances in which this may be a negative thing (other than the current one if you think of it as negative)?

Respect for human dignity was mentioned as a founding principle for our society in this decision, but it was not considered a principle of fundamental justice. Do you think this is a fair judgement?

The previous entry mentioned abortions legal status in Canada and its possible relation to euthanasia. How do you think this relates to the supreme court decision? Will the fact that we have placed the sanctity of life above personal security influence the provision of abortions?

If readers want a more eloquent explanation of the decision, they may want to refer to this website for the supreme court judges rational regarding their decions:

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